There and Back Again | May 23, 2008

My antipodean adventure is coming to a close so I thought i’d reflect on my time away. The trip started with a two day lay-over in Hong Kong to break the journey. I’ve been to this amazingly vibrant city before and it’s one of my favorite places in Asia. It’s a bit of a cliche but Hong Kong really is a city where east and west collide. A city where hundred year old temples sit next to trendy bars and street hawkers compete with international food chains. Like many Asian cities, gadgets rule supreme in this town and none more so than the ever ubiquitous mobile phone. The streets are a blur of activity both day and night, and as dusk falls the city is lit by a forest of neon. Like stepping into a scene from Blade Runner, you expect Decker to come round the corner any minute.

Getting from the Airport to Mongkok is a breeze, and a living example of public transport done right. Riding the MRT is also a joy, especially if you grab an Octopus card. These little cards can also be used as currency throughout the city, so remember to top up. The flight wasn’t too onerous so I turned up at the Langham Place Hotel in pretty good shape. However for an extra bit of R&R I went for a quick swim followed by a relax in the hotel spa. The view from the 56th floor Oriental hot tub was awesome.

I’ve done the normal tourist things before, such as going to Victoria Peak, taking a sanpan round Hurricane Bay and browsing the stalls at Stanly Market. I’ve also done some more out of the way things like walking the dragons back to night wave bay. However the one thing I’ve always meant to do but never managed was a trip to the races. With betting almost banned in Hong Kong, this is one of the few opportunities city dwellers have for a quick flutter. Luckily they take this opportunity with gusto. I took some amazing pictures of the event, but as my hard drive dies when I reached Auckland, I guess they are consigned to my memory now.

I didn’t know what to expect from Auckland and I have to admit that it provoked a bit of a mixed reaction. The main drag around Queens Street was pretty characterless, although Vulcan lane and some of the other side streets proved a pleasant escape. Definitely check out the ‘hash brown stack’ at the Vulcan Cafe if you want a hearty, artery hardening breakfast. However it was the areas of Parnell, K Road and especially Ponsonby that caught my interest. Still, the city was pretty spread out and obviously not designed to be circumnavigated by foot. Sadly I didn’t manage to get out of the city and see the hot springs of Rotaroua or the beautiful Bay of Islands, but this provides the perfect excuse to come back.

Next up was the city of Wellington and possibly the biggest surprise of the trip. I’ve not been to Wellington before but as the seat of government I thought it could be a little grey and lifeless. This couldn’t have been further from the truth. Wellington turned out to be a seriously cool city with a vibrant cafe culture, some amazing bars and restaurants, and a burgeoning tech community. I particularly commend Deluxe and Midnight Espresso for their enlightened opening times. Why we don’t have late night cafes in the UK is beyond me.

The Museum Hotel proved the perfect base from which to explore the city, although as Tantek rightly pointed out, it was the type of hotel you’d want to bring a partner to. The room felt far too opulent for one person alone. Another time I guess. Talking about time the schedule was pretty packed, so I ended up being confined to the city limits once again. Otherwise I would have liked to have checked out some of the local vineyards and gone LOTR location spotting. However I did manage to sample some of the Wellington night life thanks to a few members of the local tech crowd. The hospitality was overwhelming, so cheers guys. If you’re ever in Brighton please do look me up and I’ll return the favour.

Next on the itinerary was Christchurch. On first inspection the city feels like an English market town with it’s chain stores and shopping centers. But scratch the surface and you’ll find an active counter culture of trendy bars and restaurants. You’ve just got to know where to look.

As quickly as my New Zealand adventure had started it had come to an end and I found myself heading to Australia and the city of Melbourne. I’ve never been to Melbourne before but have only heard good things. Thankfully it didn’t disappoint. The city is very cool and felt like an anglicized version of San Francisco. From the arcades and alleyways off Flinders Lane to the streets round Fitzroy and St Kilda, cafe culture was very much in evidence. Local hipsters sat in beautifully grungey surroundings, sipping ‘flat whites’ and discussing their plans for the evening. Everybody was incredibly trendy, although not in the self conscious way you find in bigger cities. The cities thoroughfares were also awash with an amazing amount of street art, giving the city a tantalizing edginess.

After my duties were over I took the opportunity to hire a car and drive The Great Ocean Road, one of the worlds best known touring routes. The nature was stunning and definitely on par with the Pacific Coast Highway or the New England backwoods. I visited some great spots including the surfing mecca of Bells Beach and the iconic Twelve Apostles. I then headed inland to sample the mountain air of the Grampains before setting course back to Melbourne. Despite being a well documented route I was glad I hired GPS. Otherwise I’m sure I would have got lost at least a couple of times.

I’m on the final leg now, jetting off to Hong Kong for a couple of days before heading back to Blighty. I’ve been away for almost a month and while I’ve had an amazing time, I’m looking forward to getting back home.

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Disconnected in Auckland | May 4, 2008

Hey sports racers. I’m in Auckland at the moment, on the second leg of my world tour and feeling decidedly disconnected. I’m not sure if it’s just bad luck but I’ve been having WiFi nightmares down under.

Like most chain hotels the Internet connection in my room isn’t free. Unfortunately the Internet connection in my room also isn’t working. So I grabbed my laptop and headed out to find a cafe with free WiFi. A scribbled note in the guide book I borrowed from Simon and Nat indicated that the cafe across the street had a free connection. Sadly the Wifi was no longer free and also no longer working.

I tried two or three cafes but the so called “Fast Internet Broadband” was neither fast or particularly board. At Cafe Melba I was forced to register my details before I was allowed the honour of paying them my money and pretty much all of them charged. The networks I did pay for were incredibly slow and much to my surprise charged for data transfer as well as time. So collecting email was fine but uploading my pics to Flickr was a no-no.

I did find one place called Mecca which proudly exclaimed that their WiFi was free. Sadly the network was password protected and none of the staff new what the password was or could be bothered to find out. So despite trying as hard as I can to support local small businesses I’ve found myself back at Starbucks who seem to have the only reliable net connection in town, despite being over twice as expensive as everybody else.

I do have one last tip off. Apparently the traders of Parnell Road have all clubbed together to offer street wide free WiFi. It’s a bit of a walk out of town, especially when it’s raining as it has been the last couple of days. But I may try to make one last sortie out there tomorrow in search of the mythical free connection.

Now I deeply object to paying for WiFi. First off I know that by it’s nature WiFi doesn’t cost much. The charges come from setting up a billing system, offering technical support and then skimming a profit off the top. The bigger problem is that it leads to a really bad customer experience. Instead of being permanently connected and being able to check your emails or Twitter whenever you want, you’re forced to meter your usage. Logging off whenever your activity goes quiet to conserve those precious minutes.

It reminds me of the dark ages of dial up and feels like internet rationing. I’m sure when I tell my children about the old days when you had to conserve your Internet usage they will roll their eyes and say “Oh daddy, don’t be so silly, the Internet doesn’t cost money!”

I don’t know if I’m spoilt and this is the norm, but Brighton is literally dripping in free wifi thanks to the lovely chaps at Loose Connection. Similarly most of the US cities I visit have plenty of free wifi cafes and some of them even have free municipal connections. Even Singapore airport offers a free net connection to all it’s travellers.

I do think in this day and age WiFi should be offered as a free service to cafe patrons, much the same way as they offer free newspapers or use of the washroom. WiFi is extremely easy to set up and by it’s very nature wants to be free. You have to go out of your way to lock it down and start charging for it.

I imagine that the cafes don’t make any money out of this. Instead a salesman from a big telecom company has come round and offered them free kit in exchange for the opportunity to fleece their customers. On the surface this sounds like a good deal, but you’d get much more custom and generate much better feelings if you simply set up your own WiFi router and opened it up to the public. I know that I frequent cafes and bars that offer free WiFi much more regularly than other establishments, even when I’m not looking to ‘log on’. And I would have been there every day for breakfast and lunch if just one cafe in Auckland offered a free connection, instead of being continuously disappointed.

I’m heading to Wellington and Christchurch next, before hopping over to Melbourne, so if you can recommend a nice cafe with free WiFi in any of those places, please let me know.

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Post SXSW Mexico Travel Advise | February 5, 2006

After SXSWi 20006, I’ll be heading down to Mexico for a well deserved break. The flights only cost a little bit more, so it seemed like an opportunity not to be missed. I’ve never been to Mexico before, but it’s a place I’ve always wanted to visit. As such, I’m looking for a bit of travel advice from anybody who has spent time in the area.

I’m flying into Cancun, and have been told that Playa Del Carmen is a good place to base yourself. However if you have any other recommendation, please let me know. I’m looking to stay somewhere nice, relaxed and not too touristy, preferably in a pleasant but not to expensive hotel. I’m looking forward to seeing the Maya ruins, as well as getting in a few days diving. I’m particularly interested in checking out some of the cenotes as I’ve not done much cave diving, and these places look out of this world. I’m also keen to do a significant amount of chilling, away from the laptop and mobile phone, with the only interruption being the occasional margarita.

So if you’ve been to this part of Mexico, I’d love to hear your top travel tips. Where is a good place to stay, a good place to eat and a good place to chill? What are the best Maya sites, the top tourist highlights and what do I absolutely, positively, have to see? Oh, and if you’re into your diving, what are the best dive sites and cenotes to visit?

I look forward to your advice and suggestions.

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Holiday in Provence | August 29, 2005

I went on a weeks holiday to Provence at the start of the month. Apart from school trips as a child, I’ve never properly been to France, always preferring more exotic locations. However I have to say that I really enjoyed the South of France. We stated in a fantastic villa in St Remy de Provance.

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We hired cars and drove to places like Orange, Gordes, Chateauneurf-du-pape and Isle sur la Sorgues where we wandered around markets and villages eating some great food along the way.

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SOUTH | July 21, 2005

British explorer and blogger, Ben Saunders will be setting out next year on his most dangerous journey to date. He will be attempting to complete Scott’s ill fated 1911-1912 Polar expedition, and in doing so, become the first person to return from the South Pole on foot.

In typical explorer style, Ben is currently looking for patrons to help fund the trip. However rather than courting wealthy dowagers he is taking the thoroughly modern approach of micro-patronage. So if you want to be part of this epic 1,800-mile, four month expedition, why not sponsor a mile of the trip. Slightly more bragging rights than sponsoring the neighbours kid in his school egg-and-spoon race.

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A Long Weekend In New York | April 11, 2005

After SXSW Interactive wrapped up, most of the “BritPack” headed off home. However I decided to make the most of my time away, so arranged to meet up with my girlfriend for a long weekend away in New York.

I’ve always wanted to visit New York, but despite all my travelling, it’s a place I’ve never managed to get to. New York is one of those big cities–like London, Sydney or Hong Kong– that you absolutely have to visit at least once in your life. We live in an age where American popular culture has penetrated the furthest reaches of the world, and New York takes centre stage in our collective consciousness. It’s one of the places that you’ve seen so many times on TV and in the movies, you feel you know it, even if you’ve never been there before. It didn’t disappoint.

The first taste most foreign travellers get of a country or city is the city’s airport. Singapore and Hong-Kong airports are fantastic. All glass and steel, these futuristic edifices really show the international traveller how that country wants to be perceived. By contrast, Newark Airport felt much more like Heathrow or Gatwick–grubby and dilapidated. My girlfriend was flying in from the UK in a couple of hours time so I wanted to find the International arrivals. Asking for the assistance from Airport staff was an exercise in frustration, as all I managed to elicit was their annoyance, interrupting them from their important duties of staring off into space.

As anybody who’s ever been to Newark will tell you, the facilities “airside” are much better than those in the arrivals lounge, which do a good job of mimicking the facilities of a third world bus depot. If you’re waiting for somebody in the airport, whatever you do, don’t pass through customs. It’s just not worth it.

Three bored and uncomfortable hours later, I met up with Mel and we headed off into town. Now airport transfers are the next big hurdle for the international traveller. In Hong-Kong you’ve got an amazingly clean and efficient train service that gets you into town in no time flat. By contrast getting home from Heathrow involves a trip on one of the rudest, inefficient and uncomfortable bus services in the world.

It would seem that the Newark coach transfer people have been taking lessons from the Airport Express coach service, because the service sucked big time. After a 45 min wait in the freezing cold, we were herded onto a dilapidated and packed bus like cattle. 45 minutes later we were deposited on the sidewalk supposedly to wait for a shuttle bus to take us to our hotel. None of the other people waiting seemed to know what was going on and the person from the bus company was decidedly uncommunicative. Welcome to New York. The queue slowly thinned as people got fed up of waiting and jumped in a cab. When it got down to just us and another couple It was time to jump ship and get a cab as well.

Tired, exhausted and harassed, the St. Regis hotel was a sight for sore eyes. The room we were staying in was fantastic, with glass chandeliers, walk in wardrobes and our own personal butler. Despite being one of the most expensive and exclusive hotels in New York (Rod Stuart was staying just down the hall), we were never made to feel uncomfortable or out of place. The staff were amazingly friendly and the concierge was one of the most helpful people I’ve ever met.

With a pretzel vendor on every street corner and steam billowing out of every manhole cover, New York was exactly how I imagined it. Huge wide streets, skyscrapers everywhere–it felt like we’d just walked onto a set of a movie. In fact, the streets were so clean compared to home, it all felt a little artificial. Not wanting to burst any illusions of England, but it really takes a trip overseas to remind you how dirty and rundown the UK really is.

However the subway was even grubbier than the London underground. If you’ve ever been on the tube you know that’s pretty hard to accomplish, but New York does manages it effortlessly. While the subway did feel a little oppressive at times, New York felt a lot safer than I’d expected. This could have just been ignorance, but I never felt particularly threatened. Even when we ended up walking around a dodgy and deserted part of the city late one evening I felt safer than I would have in a similar situation in London or Manchester.

The day after we arrived happened to be St. Patrick’s day, so me and Mel went to see the parade. I’d been expecting a big parade, but I wasn’t expecting all the world marching bands to descend on the city for the day. It was huge. The parade started about 10 am and people were still marching along at 6pm. The atmosphere was good-natured and I was really surprised to see how much respect the crowd had for the police. I don’t know if that was just an after-effect of 9/11 or not, but it seemed that the US police have much more respect that their British cousins. Anybody with an ounce of Irish blood in their veins, and many more without, were on the streets wearing traditional green plastic Irish hats, red wigs and four leaf clovers. However I was really disappointed to see people in the parade walking along with banners of Irish terrorist martyrs. For a city that’s been so hurt by terrorism, it seemed inconceivable they’d condone such behaviour.

While in New York, we managed to see most of the main sights. We took the Staten Island ferry past the Statue of Liberty, strolled through central park and enjoyed the amazing art at MOMA. We wandered up Wall Street (boy it’s tiny) and went to pay our respects at “Ground Zero”. One thing I did learn is whatever you do, don’t go up the empire state building when it’s busy. I thought the English were supposed to have the monopoly on queuing! We queued 30 min for a ticket then another 45 to get to the lift. Despite being freezing cold outside it was roasting inside. When we got to the lift we thought that was it, only to be deposited 5 floors below the observation deck to wait another 45 min for the lift up. In the end one of the people working there suggested we take the fire escape. Getting out into the cool night air was such a relief. The views were pretty spectacular, but after 10 minutes we were done. Not really worth the 2 hour wait! And of course we had to queue for another 45 min to get out of the place.

One of the highlights of the trip was a Helicopter ride round Manhattan that Mel organised as an early birthday treat. Despite learning to fly fixed wings when I was younger, I’ve never been in a helicopter (or a hot air balloon for that matter). It was great seeing New York from this angle and we got a close up view of the Statue of Liberty without having to wait hours for the ferry out there. If you’re planning to go to New York I can highly recommend this as an experience of a lifetime.

We were only in New York for 5 days but it really felt like we saw all of it. At least my feet felt like we saw all of it. In one afternoon we walked around Brooklyn heights, across the bridge, around Chinatown and Little Italy, then over to SoHo, before ending up in a fantastic bar near the Apple store. I’d love to remember the name of this bar (cafe something) as it probably had the friendliest bar staff of anywhere I’ve ever been. We stopped in really to rest our feet, but the bar owner kept pouring us free beers. We rolled out of there about 2 hours later decidedly drunker than we went in, having had five beers each but only having paid for two. Now that’s what I call New York hospitality.

We were determined to make the most of the New York nightlife, however Mel was still jet lagged and I was exhausted from SXSW, not to mention all the sightseeing we were doing. One night we made it to the meat packing district and hung out in some cool bars such as APT and Lotus. Another night we hit the lower east side and more grungier places like Max Fish. However we were both so tired we rarely made it out past 1am.

As well as fun nights out we also managed to get some great food in New York. One night we headed out to SoHo for some excellent Mexican food at Dos Caminos. Another night we sampled some traditional New York pizza at Lombardi’s. I was much less impressed with the food at the Emperor Diner, however the setting was great and it’s the only place I’ve ever eaten a burger while listening to live piano music.

All told, I had an excellent time in New York. It’s a great city and I definitely plan to go back soon. Now that I’ve done the tourist thing I’ll look forward to spending more time exploring the city, eating at great restaurants and enjoying the nightlife.

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New York Travel Tips | January 13, 2005

After SXSW I’ll be stopping over in New York for a few days. Amazingly I’ve never been to NYC before so I’d love to hear your top tips for the city. Also if anybody can recommend a good, reasonably priced hotel I’d appreciate it.

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Hong Kong Pictures | October 7, 2004

I really enjoyed my recent trip to Hong Kong, Shanghai and Beijing, taking around 12 rolls of film (mostly Fuji Velvia ) on the 2 week trip. Using film can be pretty expensive and this trip cost me over 150 in film stock and processing alone. Quite a few people have said this would be an excellent reason to go digital, however I really love the clarity and colour saturation you get from transparencies.

I wanted to get the photos up as soon as possible, along with a trip report. However it took a week for the slides to get developed (another plus for digital) and I've just moved flats which put a bit of a spanner in the works. However I was up till 2am last night bashing the first set of images and have uploaded some of the best to my photo gallary. I've also added some of the ones that didn't quite make it here and hope you enjoy them.

While I was very happy with the pics, I was less than happy how they scanned. I've got quite a cheap scanner and It's just not done the images justice. I've tweaked the curves to get them as close in colour and saturation as possible, but they have lost a degree of detail in the shadows and there seem to be quite a bit of noise. Apart from tweaking the curves to repair the dodgy scanning, I've not done any other manipulation to these images.

Flowers in the flower market.

The peak tram.

The view from Victoria Peak

Hong Kong skyline at night.

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Hong-Kong, Shanghai and Beijing Advice | September 6, 2004

I’m off on my holidays soon, so thought I’d ask you folks for advice, Douglas Bowman style. I’ll be travelling around China for two weeks visiting Hong-Kong, Shanghai and Beijing and would welcome any advice you may have.

I’ve been to Hong-Kong before so have done a lot of the standard tourist faire. I’ll be going up to Victoria Peak again to grab some pics of the amazing Hong-Kong skyline. I’m also planning to head out to Happy Valley for a night at the races. Most people think that Hong-Kong is just banks and sky scrapers but it actually has some amazing nature and beaches. Last time I was there I spent a loverly afternoon hanging out at Stanley and also made the trip over to see the Big Buddha at Po Lin monastery on Lantau. This time I think we’re planning to walk the Dragons Back and possibly visit Cheung Chau island.

Hong-Kong has some great bars and restaurants so at least one evening we’ll be heading into SOHO to grab some food and ride the worlds longest escalator. Being a vegi it’s sometimes hard to try out the local delicacies but in Hong-Kong they specialise in making vegi food that looks like meat. I’m not talking Linda McCartney sausages or burgers here either. I’m talking vegi pork, duck and even shrimp that’s so convincing my girlfriend will ask before eating each dish, “But Andy, are you sure this ones vegi? It looks awfully like meat to me!”. I’m also looking forward to dim-sum at a floating restaurant and tea at the Peninsula Hotel.

After 4 days in Hong-Kong we’ll be heading out to Shanghai to visit my girlfriends parents who are working these at the moment. While I’ve been told that there isn’t much of old Shanghai left these days, it sounds like the spirit lives on with some amazing restaurants, bars and clubs.

Next stop Beijing. We’ll have 3 days, 4 night here, so will have to pack a lot of sightseeing into a very short window. On the first day we are planning to visit Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City, a place I’ve wanted to go to since seeing The Last Emperor. Day two will find us heading out to the Great Wall, the only urban myth you can see from space. A structure so mind numbingly impressive that Nixon exclaimed upon seeing the Great Wall “It sure is a great wall”. Apparently there are 4 sites close to Beijing so I’d be interested to hear peoples recommendations on this front. Then on the last day we plan to hire bikes and go on a cycling tour of Beijing. I just hope my medical insurance it up to scratch.

And that’ll be pretty much be that. Just a half day left in Hong-Kong waiting for our international connection, and then homeward bound. I’m hoping to take some good pics so if any of the photographers in the audience have been, I’d love to hear your tips. If I get half as many good pics as Mike, I’ll be over the moon.

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Flying Into Male Airport | June 15, 2004

One of the most impressive flights ever has to be landing at Male airport in the Maldives. As the plane descends, stretching before you is a sea of azure blue reefs and atolls. The engines ease off and the plane gently floats down, almost skimming the water before finally touching down. Male airport sits on it's own private Atoll so transfers to your hotel are either by speedboat or, if you're lucky, by sea plane. Beats descending into Heathrow airport and then fighting your way to the train or bus station any day.

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Diving the Southern Red Sea on the Sea Serpent | June 5, 2004

Red Sea Livabooard, the Sea Seprpent

Check In at Gatwick

The nerves didn’t hit until I got to the check-in que for my 5 hour flight to Marsa Alam, Egypt. I was heading out on a liveaboard trip called the simply the best. The itenary took in some of the best dive sites in the southern Red Sea. Sites that were as known for their ferocious currents and large swell as they were for their shark action. However it wasn’t the diving conditions or the chance to dive with hammer heads that was causing my anxiety. It was the people in front of me.

I was travelling on my own and planning to spend 7 nights on a dive boat with 19 other guests. On these kinds of trips, the other people on the boat are as important as the diving. Have a good mix and you’ll have a great time, a bad mix and I’d be spending the whole trip locked in my cabin. I checked the group in front. They looked a nightmare.

There were around 12 of them all travelling together. They looked like they were on the way to an England match or a holiday to the Costa Del Sol, not a Red Sea diving holiday. They were checking in more dive kit than an entire Navey Seal team, but looked a lot less fun. Great, a tech diving club from Essex. Please, please don’t be on the same boat as me. I couldn’t bare 6 days of comparing depth gauges, discussing mixed gas diving and extolling the virtues of cold water diving.

Arrival at Marsa Alam and The MV Sea Serpent

After a relatively uneventful flight, I landed in Marsa Alam International Airport. Basically a glorified bus station without the charm. I’m sure there must be a company somewhere that churns out cheap airports for developing countries as they all look the same. The que started to develop and was obviously overwhelming the one guy at passport control. Despite having only one flight that day, it seemed to take the airport staff a little by surprise. I smiled quietly to myself. The joys of travelling to developing countries.

Met outside by a rep of the tour company, I was glad to see the tech divers being led off in a separate direction. I let out a visible sigh of relief as I was directed to the bus that would take me to the boat and my home for the next week. The MV Sea Serpent was billed as a luxury livaboard, and she didn’t disappoint. I’ve been on many livaborads over the years, from backpacker boats in Thailand and Indonesia, to modern livaboards plying the Barrier Reef and Coral Sea, and the Sea Serpent was definitely amongst the nicest I’ve stayed on.

All the guests assembled in the lounge and we were introduced to our “trip director” for the week, a loverly Egyptian dive instructor called Hazim. With an amazingly dry sense of humour, Hazim proved to be both an excellent dive leader, and a great source of entertainment for the rest of the trip. After a quick boat brief we got our cabins assignments, unpacked and set up our dive gear.

Despite having 20 guests and a crew of 16, the Sea Serpent was plenty big enough. With a large lounge, big gearing up area and a couple of sun decks, there was enough of space for everybody. The cabins were a reasonable size, complete with on-suit facilities and after a couple of days, I even got used to the rock hard beds.

Time to get wet

We stayed in port that night and headed out the early the next morning for our first day of diving. As usual on these kind of trips, the first dive was a check dive. Basically this involves going to a relatively easy (read dull) dive site so the guides can make sure you know what you’re doing. Being a dive instructor, I was worried that I’d end up baby sitting inexperienced divers. This has happened to me on more than one trip, so these days I usually don’t mention that I’m an instructor. However on this occasion, I was extremely lucky. I was put in a group with 3 other experienced divers including another dive instructor and a dive master.

We stayed in this group for the rest of the trip, and out of all the groups, probably had the most luck spotting marine life. It’s great diving with people of a similar level of experience, as you can just get on with the dive, without constantly having to worry about your buddy. The more experienced you get, the slower and more relaxed you become. I’m always amazed how many divers think they are in a race. Whizzing off as fast as they can, it’s no wonder they miss so much and run out of air so soon. On the other had, we were often the first in the water and the last out, seeing an amazing amount of sea life in-between.

Rough seas, currents and sharks

After the initial check dive, the first real stop was a pair of islands called The Brothers. They were a 5 hour crossing from our first dive site, and the seas were pretty rough. I don’t normally suffer from sea sickness, however the crossing was unpleasant even for me. I’d say that at least half the guests ended up being sick and after a couple of hours of rolling seas I decided it would be best to get some kip. Getting to Little Brother an hour before sunset, there was just enough time to get in a dive.

All the diving on this trip was to be done from RIB’s, small inflatable boats with an outboard motor. This is pretty common in the UK, but the closest I’ve got to diving from a RIB was diving from long tale boats in Thailand. The sea was extremely choppy so just getting into the boat was a task. Getting to the dive site was even more of a challenge. By this time the waves were big. I’m not sure how big, but I’d estimate some had a good 6+ foot of face on them. Perched on the side of the boat in full dive gear and holding on for dear life, we bounced along the swell for about 20 minutes to reach the drop off point. Every now and then, a big wave would rear up and I’d quietly pray that the boat didn’t get flipped. Luckily the boat drivers were excellent and somehow managed to get us to the drop off point in one piece.

Because of the surge and potential for ripping currents (which could cause buddy separation) we had to do a negative entry. For those non divers out there, this basically means rolling off the side of the boat with no air in your jacket and going straight underwater. If you’re carrying loads of extra weight, this is easy. You just breath out and sink like a stone. However I tend to have just enough weight to keep me down, so as soon as I hit the water I would have to start finning madly to avoid the whirling props of the RIB, and stay with the rest of my group. Never having done this before, it took a bit of getting used to. I wanted to do it with all the grace of Jacques Cousteau, but ended up looking more like a thrashing toddler. At least the boat didn’t slice me in two.

Slowly descending to 30m, I quickly forgot the chaotic and frankly scary boat ride out. A mild current gently pushed us along and we all headed off in search of big fish. Like most dive holidays, each dive slowly blurs into one. I can’t remember if we saw Hammer Heads on this first dive or not. However, throughout the rest of the trip we clocked up an impressive number of sightings. The thing that stood out on this first proper dive was a close encounter with Silky Sharks.

I’ve never seen silkeys before, so it was another big shark to tick off the list. We encountered them at the end of the dive as we made our way back to the boat. They seemed to take a liking to the underside of our liveaboard and swam around us for 10 minutes while we were doing our 5m safety stop. Unlike the hammers, these silkeys were not shy and even managed to scare the video pro out of the water by getting a little too friendly. So predictable were they, that after every dive on “little brother” we’d save an extra bit of air to hang out with our own personal “boat sharks”. Who needs blue planet when you’ve got the real thing 5m bellow where you’re sleeping.

Diving the Brothers, Dadelous and Elphinstone

The days started to form a regular pattern. Wake up at 6am. In the water around 7:30am for the first dive. Breakfast at around 9am and then a long surface interval till 1pm for the second dive of the day. Lunch around 3pm, last dive at around 6pm, dinner at 8pm and in bed by 11pm. The day revolved around eating, sunbathing, diving and sleeping. It was physically exhausting, but mentally relaxing. No worrying about what to do or where to go. The whole day was planned out from start to finish. On trips like this, food is really important, and the only thing that let the trip and the boat down was the sub standard grub. It was OK for the first couple of days, but quickly became a source of complaint. For a budget boat, it would have been bearable, but for something billed as a luxury livaboard (with a price tag to match), the food was pretty poor. In fact, at least 5 of the guests ended up getting ill from the food which was definitely not a good sign.

The next 2 days we clocked up 6 more dives at the Brothers. The seas never abated and the currents got stronger. On a few occasions there were mad up and down currents. Our group managed to weather them pretty well, but on one dive every other group either aborted or got sucked down to depth by the ferocious currents. Funnily, this actually turned out to be one of our nicest dives, with a couple of good close encounters with hammer heads and even a manta sighting. When not looking onto the blue on shark spotting duty, I’d scan the reef walls enjoying the colourful soft corals and looking for critters. I’m a big fan of macro stuff but the southern Red Sea really is more of a big fish destination, so don’t expect to see much small stuff. On one dive we clocked up around 8 Hammer heads and a Manta. Not bad.

From the Brothers we made a much quieter crossing to Dadelous Reef. Looking like a scene from a James Bond movie, Dadelous was a completely submerged reef topped by an impressive lighthouse and jetty. Like the Brothers, the seas around Dadelous were also pretty choppy. However, by this time, I was used to the boat rides and even started to enjoy them. This site also produced more stunning diving with even more encounters with Hammer Heads.

After a days diving at Dadelous, our next stop was Elphinstone reef. I was really looking forward to this reef as I’ve heard tell of lot’s of big shark action. However it’s the closest reef to shore and is gaining more of a reputation for the number of dive boats moored up than the likelihood of encountering sharks. At the time there were probably half a dozen big boats and maybe another 4 or 5 RIB’s buzzing around. This is significantly more than we experienced on any other dive site on the trip, but supposedly a quiet day on Elphinstone. Doing 3 dives here I have to say that I wasn’t very impressed. The coral was nice, and despite the number of boats, we saw few divers in the water. However there just wasn’t the profusion of sharks that I’d expected.

Coming to an end

Coming to the end of the trip, we spent the last diving day in a sheltered bay doing a couple of simple, relaxing dives. The first dive was spent floating around a patch of sea grass looking for an elusive Dugong. Failing to see the fabled sea cow, our final dive of the trip was a nice relaxing dive on a pretty stretch of fringing reef. Very different to the preceding days hard core wall diving and a nice way to end the holiday. We chugged back to the harbour for lunch, spent the evening on the boat and then got transferred to a hotel for the next day.

Who should be at the hotel pool, but the tech divers I saw at check-in. Now acting like there were on a holiday to Spain, I was doubly glad I didn’t end up getting stuck with them for the whole trip. Being on a boat for 7 day, there is no escape from the other divers. As such, it’s the other guests that can make of break a trip. On this occasion I was lucky. Without exception, all of the other divers were great. We all got on really well and had an excellent time together.

On the whole I had a really great week. The boat was good, and the crew were exceptional. Always there to help you into and out of your dive gear, there was always somebody at hand. Coming back from the first dive, the beds were made, the cabins cleaned and fresh fruit juice was waiting for you on the dive deck. Along with Hazim, we had an excellent Egyptian dive guide named Hanny and a great English videographer called Simon.

Apart from the food, my only other complaint was that I’d have preferred to have done 4 dives a day (which is more usual), rather than just 3. However I’d have no qualms about going recommending the Sea Serpent or the diving in the Southern Red Sea. In fact I’m itching to go back and hope to arrange another liveaboard holiday there in Sep/Oct.

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Travel | February 14, 2004

One of my big passions in life is travel. It started during my first summer break at university while living in a small surfing village in Devon. Lots of the other surfers were also travellers. They would work the summer season then head off to tropical climes, following the endless summer. At the time I wasn’t that adventurous, but wanted to do something more than another summer season in the west country. So I bought an interail ticket and trained it all the way through Europe to Morocco. Morocco was amazing and sparked an interest in both travel and travel photography, that I’ve been pursuing ever since.

When I left university I spent 6 months travelling around Asia. On my return all I could think of was going away again. I worked loads of bum jobs and saved up for what would become a year and a half trip around Asia and Australia. During this time I spent 6 months travelling around India, and it was on a trip to the India Andaman Islands that I learnt to dive. Several months later, I ended up in the beautiful Thai Island of Koh Tao where I spent the next six months learning to be, and then working as, a Dive master.

I then went on to Australia where, amongst other things, I worked on a Great Barrier Reef liveaboard boat doing shark encounters in the Coral Sea. Running out of money I headed back to Thailand for a few months, and then back to Blighty. I’d caught the diving bug so, after another year of saving, I went back to Thailand to sit my Dive Instructor course. I spent the next 12 month travelling around SEA working as a Dive Isntructor.

Returning to the UK, I started working on the web. At the time, the web was big business. If you knew HTML you were in huge demand and I figures I could work 6 months of the year and travel the rest. Unfortunately the bubble quickly burst and I never managed to secure that idea lifestyle. However travel is still hugely important to me. Unlike many of my friends who spend all their money of gadgets, I save up my money and manage to get in one big trip every 9 months. Last Oct I was lucky enough to visit Vietnam/Cambodia and In April I’m planning my second big dive trip to Borneo.

Map of the world outlining all the countries I've been to

While surfing the web, I came across this cool site. You can put in all the countries you’ve visited and it produces a map outlining all the places you’ve been. It also tells you how much of the world you’ve seen. Putting in my details it turns out that I’ve visited 19 countries, and have seen 8% of the world. I was quite impressed, however my girlfriend did the same and got a stunning 11%.

I have to admit that I’m a person of habit. I’ll find a place and go back several times. Here is a quick run down of the interesting places I’ve been and the number of times I’ve been there

As you can see I keep going back to Thailand. This is where I trained as a professional diver and somewhere I keep being drawn back to. The diving’s good, the food is great and it’s got an amazing combination of culture, beaches and lifestyle. I’ve been to Malaysia a bunch of times, although often it’s been to renew my Thai visa. I went to Borneo a few years back to visit friends who run an underwater filming company out there, the same people I’m going out to see in April. They do documentaries for the BBC and Discovery Channel but are probably best known for filming the in water scenes on the Survivor TV series.

Australia is cool and Sydney is one of the few places in the world I’d like to live. NZ is also great as you’ll see from the pics in my gallery. Truly a landscape photographers paradise. Another place I’d quite like to live is Hong Kong. I love Asia and you can’t get much more Asian than the bustle of Kowloon. However many visitors completely miss the beaches and islands of Hong Kong, which there are many. If you have money in HK, you live in the mountains or by the beach and only go downtown to work.

India, Indonesia and Morocco are probably the most “exotic” places I’ve been to. Culturally they are just so different from any thing I’ve ever seen and I’d love to go back at some stage. I was lucky enough to work on a dive boat in the north of Indonesia for a few months where I dived pristine reefs and even an active underwater volcano (which was way cool).

I love the diving in the Red Sea, Egypt. It’s the closets reef to the UK at a little over 4hrs and you can get some great deals year round. However the best places I’ve dived have to be Manado in Indonesia, Layang-Layang and Sipadan in East Malaysia (Borneo) and Richelieu Rock in Thailand. I’m getting stoked about this next trip though, as not only will we be visiting Sipadan, but we’ll also be heading into Indo to visit a place called Sangalaki. This island is extremely difficult to get to, but boast some amazing diving including schools of resident Manta rays and a fresh water jellyfish lake, only two of it’s kind in the world. It’s probably been 2 years since my last diving trips so I”m looking forward to getting back in the water.

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Some Black and White Pics from Angkor | October 28, 2003

I got my Pics back today. Unfortunately the Angkor ones didn't come out particularly well (as i'd suspected). However I did shoot one roll of black and white and a few of them came out OK.

Picture of person and stupa

Temple carvings

Angkor guard

Stone head 2

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Angkor What? | October 8, 2003

I'm jetting off to Vietnam tomorrow evening for a short, but much needed break. As part of this holiday i'll be taking a 5 day side trip to Visit Angkor Wat in Cambodia. Angkor is somewhere i've wanted to go for years, so i'm constantly surprised by the blank looks I get from people when I tell them about this trip.

For those of you who don't know, Angkor is an ancient Khmer city built around the 9th century AD. Containing around 100 temples, Angkor is now one of UNSECO's largest and most impressive world heritage sites. The site laid forgotten for thousands of years until it was rediscovered in the late 19h Century by european explorers. Many of the temples are still overgrown with jungle, giving the sites a real indiana jones feel. In fact the temple complex of Angkor Wat was used as a backdrop for the first Tomb Raider film.

In a last trawl through my RSS feeds today I was surprised and delighted to come across this posting on hebig.org. The article points to the world heritage tour site featuring, amongst other things, 13 amazing VR's from Angkor.

Suffice to say, this place is a big draw to photographers and has been the setting for some truly breathtaking work. So I've loaded up on film, packed my camera, lenses and tripod, and am hoping to get at least a few pictures to add to my photo site.

For more info about this amazing place, have a look at the Angkor page on the history channel site or read/download this guide.

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